The year of reconciliation: Stories led to a dialogue about racism in this city


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While political change can happen quickly, deep-seated shifts in public opinion tend to take place imperceptibly over time.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 02/01/2016 (2411 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

While political change can happen quickly, deep-seated shifts in public opinion tend to take place imperceptibly over time.

This is why 2015, as rough as it may have seemed, was a good year for introspection and reconciliation in Winnipeg.

At the start of the year, when Maclean’s magazine declared this city the most racist in Canada, reactions ranged from ashamed acceptance to angry outrage to “Yeah, well, tell us something we don’t know.”

TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS files The federal government has to make a payment every year in lieu of taxes for the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

There was acceptance because anyone who lives in Winnipeg can plainly see the socio-economic divisions between indigenous residents of this city and non-indigenous residents, in terms of income, employment, education, health outcomes, access to acceptable housing and victimization by violent crime.

There was outrage in some circles because Maclean’s sloppily mixed up institutional racism — that is, the undeniable differences in quality of life, which can be measured objectively — and overt racism, the outright hatred that just might be no worse here than anywhere else.

There was also eye-rolling because a national publication deigned to tell Winnipeg something it already knew about itself. To repeat what I scribbled in January, you’d have to walk around this town with your eyes covered in hockey tape and your ears filled with molasses not to notice racism in this city.

But since our collective psyche calls for an overreaction to any magazine claim — witness what former Jets foreward Evander Kane had to say about Winnipeg in The Hockey News, or what National Geographic Traveler had to say about our tourism appeal — some folks here did in fact respond as if Maclean’s had made a revelation.

Mayor Brian Bowman issued an immediate pledge to do something to improve socio-economic divisions that belie the ability of any single politician to ameliorate. There is no reason to question the mayor’s intentions, but the result of his promise — a two-day conference in September — only served to continue a public dialogue about racism.

All of this is a long-winded way of saying attitudinal changes were afoot in Winnipeg well before one magazine decided to confer pariah status upon the city.

During the summer of 2014, the murder of Tina Fontaine and the attack on Rinelle Harper had already horrified the entire community and further focused national attention on the plight of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls. Late in 2015, the new federal government promised an inquiry, although the scope remains undetermined.

On a separate track, the federal Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which spent years examining the residential-schools system, concluded in June that Canada used those schools to commit nothing less than cultural genocide.

At a somewhat academic level, this sparked a public discussion as to what constitutes what the United Nations calls “ethnocide.” On a broader level, the TRC created a greater awareness among non-indigenous residents of Winnipeg about a dark chapter in Canadian history — one that will not resolve itself as long as survivors and their children continue to suffer from the after-effects of abuse.

On yet another track, 2015 also was the year more Winnipeggers became aware of the hardship faced by residents of northwestern Ontario’s Shoal Lake 40 First Nation, who live under a boil-water advisory even though they live alongside the source of this city’s drinking water.

Cut off from the mainland by the construction of the Winnipeg Aqueduct a century ago, Shoal Lake 40 has now been promised an all-weather road by the city, province and Ottawa.

It’s worth noting the $30-million road enjoys the support of so many Winnipeggers, its construction was the only thing that elicited a genuinely enthusiastic cheer for Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger at his year-end state-of-the-province speech.

It is also worth noting the gracious manner in which Shoal Lake 40 Chief Erwin Redsky thanked Winnipeggers for their support of the road.

Some time during 2015, more Winnipeggers started considering so-called indigenous issues to simply be Winnipeg issues. This makes sense, considering this is the most indigenous city on the continent.

That is a label we can embrace. It is unique to this city, and we ought to be proud of it.

While socio-economic divisions persist and overt racism remains, there is cause for cautious optimism at the dawn of 2016.

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